All year the Orioles had sifted through the scrap heap and shipped former All-Stars and wanna-bes alike to the minors to be evaluated by Johnson, a baseball lifer with a keen eye for talent.
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The husky Johnson lumbered over to the 30-year-old and said, "Let me ask you a question. Aren't you Nate McLouth?"
A sly smile — one that his friends say is his mischievous trademark — crossed McLouth's lips. He immediately understood Johnson's point, responding with, "Let it eat?" — baseball jargon meaning, "You want me to be more aggressive and get after it?"
"Absolutely. Be who you are. You've won a Gold Glove. You've put up major numbers in the big leagues. You're a good player. You're not old." Johnson said to McLouth that night.
"I mean, this guy should be in his prime," Johnson said. "So I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but it helped. And it got crazy. He hit like nine home runs in a month.
"And we got that player again. He is Nate McLouth again."
A trade that "broke his heart"
Baseball is filled with stories of players who seize a team and a town in a breakout season only to fizzle and fade a few years later, whether it's the travel grind or the intense competition or the inevitable injuries that sound a promising career's premature death knell.
McLouth was that guy, a 26-year-old homegrown All-Star and Gold Glover in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next February, he signed a three-year, $13.75 million extension to be the club's cornerstone. To put it in Orioles' terms, he was Pittsburgh's Nick Markakis, only in a smaller, Brian Roberts-sized package.
"It was the only place I ever played," said McLouth, now the Orioles' starting left fielder. "I played at every level of the minor leagues there. … And as long as it had been since the organization had won, I was really enjoying the process of trying to help turn that around and being a part of that."
Then the unexpected struck. Roughly four months after signing his lucrative deal, the feckless Pirates traded McLouth to the perennially contending Atlanta Braves. In search of an athletic, young center fielder, Atlanta offered talented right-hander Charlie Morton and two of their top seven prospects, lefty Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. The Pirates had future MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen playing center in the minors, and their pitching depth was suspect.
"They felt like it was a trade they couldn't pass up," said Orioles bench coach John Russell, who at the time was the Pirates' manager. "But I think it was a little bit of a shock to us and to Nate, just signing a multi-year deal and thinking he is going to be there and then all of a sudden to get traded."
For some, leaving baseball's purgatory for the Braves would be a godsend. It wasn't for McLouth, a small-town type from western Michigan who is described as unfailingly loyal by his friends. McLouth broke down in tears during an interview after the deal was announced.
"It was tough. Just those personal relationships," McLouth said. "You see the product on the field. You see the game on the field. But the stuff in the dugout and the clubhouse and in spring training, you don't see. You don't see the human part of it. I knew that was going to be the toughest part to leave behind."
Bill Peterson, who once managed a teenage McLouth on a travel team and has become one of his closest friends, was playing Guitar Hero in a Pittsburgh apartment with McLouth when the phone rang.
"You could tell part of him was excited to join a contender that's constantly in the playoff race, and that was intriguing to him," Peterson said. "But the flip side is Nate is a very loyal man. So it broke his heart to a degree to have it all go down like that."
"Too much pressure on himself"